Nights of the Roundtable

Kate Sutton at the 9th Gwangju Biennial

Left: Artists Abraham Cruzvillegas and Haegue Yang. Right: Gwangju Biennale jury members Deepak Ananth, Alexandra Munroe, and Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

“DID YOU KNOW that when they want to show Korea in movies, they film in Malibu?” a California-based professor divulged from the seat beside me.

Looking out at Gwangju through the bus window, I found it difficult to picture Barbie and Ken cruising their pink convertible around the Buk-gu high-rises. Then again, the city has played host to stranger realities. In 1980, a student uprising here ended in a massacre that forever altered the country’s political history. The Gwangju Biennale was founded fifteen years later as a way to commemorate that legacy of resistance. Since then, the sleepy southern city has redoubled its commitment to the arts: Once the Cradle of Democratization, Gwangju now markets itself as “Happy Creative City Gwangju.” That the biennial would redefine the region so acutely is a slap on the wrists to those who would cynically dismiss each new biennial as just a round of black boxes and misappropriated funds. The city is a testament to the power of art to infiltrate and act upon the political imagination. Or, as curator Nancy Adajania put it, “What Politics cannot do, Art can.”

In 2010, Gwangju learned more about what art can do when Massimiliano Gioni unleashed his tour de force “10,000 Lives.” Taking its name from a poem by Korean poet Ko Un, the eighth edition dismantled the mechanics of the image in an ambitious but coherent manner that, as one respected critic observed, “restored my faith in what a biennial can be.” Two years later, the Ninth Gwangju Biennale, “ROUNDTABLE,” stakes out an equally expansive project, taking on the concept of the individual in relation to the collective.

Left: Inhotim curator Eungie Joo with dealer Jose Kuri. Right: Curators Alia Swastika and Wassan Al-Khudhairi.

If Gioni kept his show tight (with a predetermined, nonnegotiable path through the exhibition), “ROUNDTABLE” models itself as an open-ended conversation, channeled by six curators—Adajania, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Mami Kataoka, Sunjung Kim, Carol Yinghua Lu, and Alia Swastika. Biennial general director Yongwoo Lee trumpeted the new structure as a display of “symbolic harmony”—a premise gently mocked in a performance by the Xijing Men, who, without the use of measuring cups, poured three glasses of juice in a torturously protracted attempt at perfect equality. If there was a “perfect equality” here, however, it only applied to those seated at the table: six young women, each presenting pretty faces of Pan-Asian persuasion. The fresh casting was supposed to be empowering, but the idea of past curators Gioni or Okwui Enwezor meekly pulling up a chair and joining in would be akin to Barbie and Ken cruising Biennale-ro. In other words, this was a roundtable for those not given their own lectern. Or, for that matter, a key to the city, as was bestowed upon Gioni. (Ever genial, the curator tried to remain casual about the tremendous honor: “I don’t know what this key even opens,” he joked. “Has anybody seen a gate around here?”)

As an exhibition, “ROUNDTABLE” resembles a panel discussion played out in space. Rather than meld ideas into a single brainstorming session, each participant maintained strict positions, to the extent that there was even a color-coded system of garage sale–style stickers to identify the curator “responsible” for each piece. (At the opening, a printing snafu meant that a few dots remained in ambiguous black-and-white. “It leaves these pieces open to interpretation,” the PR assistant assured us.) In theory, the color-coding helped connect the work to each curator’s personal subthemes: among them, “Transient Encounters,” “Intimacy, Autonomy, and Anonymity,” and “Back to the Individual Experience” (whose wall text was placed directly in front of the only set of bathrooms anyone could find). In practice, however, this one small design element both pitted the curators against one another in a curatorial land run and undermined some otherwise very articulate works, including those by Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho, Fayçal Baghriche, Fouad Elkoury, and xurban_collective.

Left: Artist Kimsooja. Right: Artist Tobias Rehberger.

Thankfully, the rigid distinctions at the main space were relaxed at the off-site venues, including the Mugaksa Temple, a Buddhist complex hidden in the very middle of the city where biennial guests gathered for a welcome dinner. While a temple may seem an unlikely setting, Mugaksa’s charismatic head monk has taken a lively interest in contemporary art, even hosting a day of Jens Hoffmann’s curatorial courses. “He was amazing,” Hoffmann gushed. “He actually gave a lecture!”

While relatively young for a temple (founded only in 1971), Mugaksa has already garnered quite a reputation for its cafeteria, which serves up only what is grown on the property, with no added salt, sugar, or animal products. “Temple food is sacred,” curator Kris Ercums explained over the buffet dinner. “You only take what you can eat, as a sign of respect.” I stared down at the lone tuber covering half of my plate. It had tagged along with a spoonful of what I thought was just greens. Across the table, biennial jury members Deepak Ananth, Alexandra Munroe, and Gioni were playing with a plate of scallion pancakes. “I would feel bad if I didn’t eat this,” I moaned, poking at the offending . . . vegetable? “Don’t feel bad,” Ananth gleefully reprimanded me. “That’s not a Buddhist feeling!” Other less Zen sentiments were expressed by another table, who slipped away for a covert barbecue, followed by a third dinner of fish—a protein overload that ended in a friendly, but no less frantic wrestling match between artists Tobias Rehberger and Simon Dybbroe Møller.

The next morning we returned to the temple to check out installations by Wolfgang Laib and Dane Mitchell, before venturing on to other satellite venues. Seoul-based artist Kim Beom had been a clear favorite within the main project, where he “prepared” a sculpture of a chicken following various stylistic recipes—Cubist, Expressionist, etc. In the Daein Market, he won more fans with Yellow Scream, a Bob Ross–style instructional art video in which Kim demonstrates how to paint sound. Nearby, the Gwangju Cinema was showcasing films by Allan Sekula and the late Chris Marker, as well as an installation by Vertical Submarine. The true treasure was in the back, where Abraham Cruzvillegas was methodically transforming each room of a tiny, dilapidated house into an artwork. “What’s with all these artists taking over buildings?” a writer grumbled, while I wiggled downstairs to get a better look at the comely cubic sculpture stacked in the yard.

Left: Artist Oliver Chanarin. Right: Artist Kim Boem.

That night, the opening ceremonies attracted enormous crowds, who congregated in pods around the multiple high-profile politicians in attendance: in particular, Park Keyn Hae, the former president’s daughter who, as Korea’s reigning “Queen of Elections,” has risen to become a candidate herself. With no hope of pushing past the hordes into the ad hoc arena’s empty seats (there weren’t any), artist Kasia Korczak, writers H. G. Masters and Sohrab Mohebbi, and I grabbed beers and headed to a treacherously steep bit of mud along the outer edges of the seating area. As we watched the festivities unfold before us, our primary concern was to not topple headlong into the crowd. We did, however, enjoy a supreme vantage point as a K-pop star in a sparkly dress took to the stage to croon “Fly Me to the Moon,” before Gioni was called up to receive his key.

That night, the afterparty in the O2 lounge was darkly lit but relatively tame, with the rowdiest elements hunkered down around bar-stations labeled BIENNALE VODKA + CRANBERRYand BIENNALE SCREWDRIVER. I wedged onto a couch with artists Oliver Chanarin, Sophia Al-Maria, and Malak Helmy, until we caught sight of Gioni mouthing “Freedom!” from across the floor. This, it turns out, had less to do with the Democratization Movement and more to do with a club of that moniker.

Resembling a rave at an opera house, Freedom had the kind of preposterous dimensions that made all behavior seem suddenly permissible. Its massive stage area was ringed by a multistoried horseshoe track of private rooms. I didn’t realize these were karaoke booths until later, when, stumbling back into what I thought was the room I had just left, I walked in on Eungie Joo, mic in hand, serenading the screen with unparalleled fervor. Facts, thankfully for everyone, got hazy from there.

Left: Artist Pedro Reyes. Right: Artist Rasheed Araeen.

The next morning, in spite of the collective hangover, the daylong Workstation program proved to be so smartly structured that each talk—from Boris Groys ruminating on philosopher-photographer Alexandre Kojève to MUKhA curator Nav Haq talking politics of “re-creation” with Wael Shawky—remained engaging to the end. The program’s title was “Where Do We Sit?,” a conjecture that took on more literal implications in the irregular, Tetris-like space constructed for the conference. Groys scored points with his thoughtful examination of biennial syntax, arguing that “while all the artists today may speak the same language, they don’t always say the same things.”

I pondered Groys’s witty aperçu as I watched Jun Yang’s Seoul Fiction for a second time. The film follows a couple on a bus ride across the country. As they evaluate Korea’s evolution, they trade nostalgia-inflected observations like, “Who wants to live in the air?” and “At least no one has to stay at home to watch the house anymore.” The film concludes with the assurance: “Don’t look back, the past will be fine.” A comforting refrain within the context, but there was something maybe dangerously revolutionary in the idea of a biennial that doesn’t look back.

Left: Gwangju Biennale curator Mami Kataoka and M+ curator Pauline Yao. Right: Curator Jens Hoffmann.

Left: A Korean-pop musician. Right: Xijing Men performance.

Left: Assistant director at Kukje Gallery Zoe Chun and curator Woo Hye-soo. Right: Writer Sohrab Mohebbi.

Left: Dealer Tina Kim and artist Kyung Jeon. Right: Artists Nina Beier and Simon Dybbroe Møller.